Feature Teacher: Dina Costa Treff
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Dina Treff is the lead teacher of the preschool program at the Child Development Lab (CDL) at the University of Georgia. She has been an early educator since 2002, with 13 years at the CDL. Dina is also a member of the Georgia AEYC Board of Directors, serving as a district representative, and is on the SECA Editorial Committee.
What is something important a child has taught you?
How to talk about grief, death, and losing someone. In 2018, my mother passed away very unexpectedly. The children and families all knew the reason for my absence from the classroom, and there were many questions when I returned: “Did you cry?,” “Why did your mom die?,” “Are you sad?” Throughout the following months, the topic of my mother’s death would randomly pop up in conversations. I would answer any questions that the children had, explaining to them that my mother did a great job taking care of others, but she did not take care of herself or her body. By the end of that year, the children were answering each other’s questions about my mother’s passing: “Ms. Dina’s mom died.” “Yeah, she didn’t take care of her body.” “Ms. Dina, I made this art for your mom.”
What is most important in your classroom?
Relationships. I take the time to build a relationship with each child in my classroom. A child cannot learn and grow without feeling secure, accepted, understood, and valued.
How do you show children that you value them?
I listen to them. I take the time to get on their level and let them know that they have my attention. I help them find answers to their questions and let them teach me—we are partners in their learning. I spend time exploring their interests in and outside of school. I also have different rituals, like giving a thumbs-up, fist bumps, and always hugs!
How do you build on children’s individual and family strengths, cultural backgrounds, and experiences?
I believe that the classroom is a community both inside and outside of school. I try to find opportunities for children, families, and teachers to spend time together outside of the classroom. Some of these opportunities have been attending story time at the library, having a picnic and watching the UGA Redcoat marching band practice, and attending UGA Lady Dawgs basketball games. Having these experiences with the children and their families strengthens our relationships with them and their connections with their community.
I also like for the children’s families to be able to share with the class about their home cultures. At the beginning of each programming year, I send out a “Family Culture” form. This has questions asking about holidays families celebrate, what languages they speak, traditional meals, and dietary restrictions. I use this form as a guide for building relationships with children and families. As one example, throughout the year, families are invited to come into the classroom to share about the holidays they celebrate. A few years ago, I asked a family if they would like to come share with the class about Eid al-Fitr. The family was so grateful to have the opportunity to share about their family’s traditions.
How do you communicate with children’s families?
Daily, either face-to-face or via text. I also send an email at the end of each week summarizing what we did at school and then an email at the beginning of each week for families to know what’s coming up. Due to the pandemic, the last few months I have used Zoom, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts to communicate with families. I also send out a Google Form every few weeks to get an understanding of how families are doing and how I can support them and their children through this time.
What do you do when things don’t go as planned?
When you are teaching 3- and 4-year-olds, some of the best teachable moments come from the unplanned experiences. When things don’t go as planned, you have to create learning opportunities from what is given. For example, we have just transitioned back to the classroom after our four-month COVID-19 shutdown. On one of the first days back, we were notified that our lunch would be delayed. This resulted in extra time, so I asked the children to come to the large group rug, thinking I would read a book while we waited for lunch. One child asked, “Why are we at the rug?” I explained that lunch was running late, and Mr. Trey would send it down soon. Then questions and conversations erupted from the group: “Who is Mr. Trey?” “He’s our cook.” “Where is the kitchen?” “How does he cook?” “What does he like to cook?” These questions showed me that the children were very curious about who cooks and prepares our meals. So now we are learning all about Mr. Trey, the kitchen, and cooking.
Words of inspiration:
“What we know matters, but who we are matters more.” —Brené Brown
Favorite children’s book:
Creepy Carrots!, by Aaron Reynolds. I know the story word for word. My newest favorite is My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.), by Peter Brown.
What I’m reading now:
How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
How I take care of myself:
I see a therapist weekly and work out at least three times a week. I watch and attend Atlanta United FC matches with my partner and family. I also like to go to bed early every night to have extra time to unwind.
Why didn’t someone tell me?
That I would spend the first month of every new programming year missing the group of children that has transitioned out of my class into pre-K.
My two cents
Children in a classroom are not automatically friends—they are classmates. Time, effort, and desire go in to creating relationships and friendships. One of my jobs is to model and teach children about creating those relationships.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
In 2017, I was the first recipient of the Georgia AEYC Peggy A. Gallagher Award for Inclusion of Young Children with Special Needs. In 2018, I was a recipient of the Terri Lynne Lokoff Children’s TYLENOL®, Children’s ZYRTEC® National Child Care Teacher Award.
What are your future goals?
To be a leader in the early childhood education field both in and out of the classroom. I hope to make an impact through my participation with Georgia AEYC by speaking up and advocating for birth through 5 programming and early childhood educators. I want individuals who teach children to see themselves as teachers. I want there to be an understanding in our country of the importance of early childhood education. We are not babysitters—we are educators!
My teaching style in three words:
Inclusive, intentional, respectful.
How have some of your professional development activities supported you as an educator?
My work with the Georgia AEYC Board of Directors has helped others see me as a professional, both inside and outside the classroom. I like to think that my position with GAEYC helps families view me as an expert in the field. I have also mentored younger early childhood education professionals and have helped them become involved.
Photographs: courtesy of Dina Costa Treff.